Suffering is common to us all, but certainly not equally. Many times it intrudes randomly and with such cruelty, we wonder how a good God could allow it. Albert Camus (born this day in 1913) was a leading voice in the struggle for understanding, and he believed understanding was the best we could hope for. In his book The Absurd Man, he wrote: “the clerk in the post office is the equal of a conqueror if consciousness is common to them.” Today we call such a person “Woke.” It comes at a price.
The Lilac is an ancient Shrub
But ancienter than that
The Firmamental Lilac
Opon the Hill Tonight—
The Sun subsiding on his Course
Bequeathes this final plant
To Contemplation—not to Touch—
The Flower of Occident.
Of one Corolla is the West—
The Calyx is the Earth—
The Capsule’s burnished Seeds the Stars—
The Scientist of Faith
His research has but just begun—
Above his Synthesis
The Flora unimpeachable
To Time’s Analysis—
“Eye hath not seen” may possibly
Be current with the Blind
But let not Revelation
By Theses be detained—
~Emily Dickinson (poem 1241)
I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire…I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all of your breath trying to conquer it. Because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.
~William Faulkner, from The Sound and The Fury
FROST AT MIDNIGHT
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
The Frost performs its secret ministry,
Unhelped by any wind. The owlet’s cry
Came loud—and hark, again! loud as before.
The inmates of my cottage, all at rest,
Have left me to that solitude, which suits
Abstruser musings: save that at my side
My cradled infant slumbers peacefully.
‘Tis calm indeed! so calm, that it disturbs
And vexes meditation with its strange
And extreme silentness. Sea, hill, and wood,
This populous village! Sea, and hill, and wood,
With all the numberless goings-on of life,
Inaudible as dreams! the thin blue flame
Lies on my low-burnt fire, and quivers not;
Only that film, which fluttered on the grate,
Still flutters there, the sole unquiet thing.
Methinks, its motion in this hush of nature
Gives it dim sympathies with me who live,
Making it a companionable form,
Whose puny flaps and freaks the idling Spirit
By its own moods interprets, every where
Echo or mirror seeking of itself,
And makes a toy of Thought.
But O! how oft,
How oft, at school, with most believing mind,
Presageful, have I gazed upon the bars,
To watch that fluttering stranger ! and as oft
With unclosed lids, already had I dreamt
Of my sweet birth-place, and the old church-tower,
Whose bells, the poor man’s only music, rang
From morn to evening, all the hot Fair-day,
So sweetly, that they stirred and haunted me
With a wild pleasure, falling on mine ear
Most like articulate sounds of things to come!
So gazed I, till the soothing things, I dreamt,
Lulled me to sleep, and sleep prolonged my dreams!
And so I brooded all the following morn,
Awed by the stern preceptor’s face, mine eye
Fixed with mock study on my swimming book:
Save if the door half opened, and I snatched
A hasty glance, and still my heart leaped up,
For still I hoped to see the stranger’s face,
Townsman, or aunt, or sister more beloved,
My play-mate when we both were clothed alike!
Dear Babe, that sleepest cradled by my side,
Whose gentle breathings, heard in this deep calm,
Fill up the intersperséd vacancies
And momentary pauses of the thought!
My babe so beautiful! it thrills my heart
With tender gladness, thus to look at thee,
And think that thou shalt learn far other lore,
And in far other scenes! For I was reared
In the great city, pent ‘mid cloisters dim,
And saw nought lovely but the sky and stars.
But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze
By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags
Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds,
Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores
And mountain crags: so shalt thou see and hear
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that eternal language, which thy God
Utters, who from eternity doth teach
Himself in all, and all things in himself.
Great universal Teacher! he shall mould
Thy spirit, and by giving make it ask.
Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether the summer clothe the general earth
With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple-tree, while the night-thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.
When William Faulkner said “Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.” he might have been thinking of Coleridge. As a precocious child, he read the Bible at three years of age and possessed an enormous capacity for memorization.
Further, his voracious appetite for books was fed by his aunt’s little business. In a letter he wrote:
My Father’s Sister kept an every-thing Shop at Crediton—and there I read thro’ all the gilt-cover little books that could be had at that time, & likewise all the uncovered tales of Tom Hickathrift, Jack the Giant-killer, &c & &c &c &c—/——and I used to lie by the wall, and mope—and my spirits used to come upon me suddenly, & in a ﬂood—& then I was accustomed to run up and down the church-yard, and act over all I had been reading on the docks, the nettles, and the rank-grass.—At six years old I remember to have read Belisarius, Robinson Crusoe, & Philip Quarle [Quarll]—and then I found the Arabian Nights’ entertainments—one tale of which (the tale of a man who was com- pelled to seek for a pure virgin) made so deep an impression on me (I had read it in the evening while my mother was mending stockings) that I was haunted by spectres, whenever I was in the dark—and I distinctly remember the anxious & fearful eagerness, with which I used to watch the window, in which the books lay—& whenever the Sun lay upon them, I would seize it, carry it by the wall, & bask, & read—
All of this was planted into the soul of a child already in love with God through his upbringing as a vicar’s son. As Malcolm Guite wrote:
If the mariner was to see the kirk itself drop away below the horizon as he set off on his voyage, he would still ﬁnd that the deep structure of Christian thought, its heights and depths, its loss and redemption, would always be with him…
The Christianity into which Coleridge was born, to which he would eventually return, and which he himself would profoundly renew and re-envisage, was not some narrow bigotry or closed-down, text-bound literalism. Coleridge’s local vicar was not a ﬂat-earther. John Coleridge was familiar with the great developments in astronomy that had taken place during his lifetime. He did not see the working of reason or the enlargement of the mind through the discoveries of science as in any sense a threat to his faith.
Were you raised in a religious home?
How does your answer now inform your life?
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In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
It’s the fall of 1985. I’m sitting in a classroom at Washington University in St. Louis, participating in a seminar for my master’s degree. This particular seminar is simply entitled “The Nature of Story.”
Of all the novels on the syllabus, the only one I’ve previously read is One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The syllabus includes The Sound of the Fury by William Faulkner, A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean, and about eight other novels. As it so happens, the first novel we’re reading for the course is One Hundred Years of Solitude. I first read it in college when it was relatively new and all the rage, about the same time as The Lord of the Rings. I’ve dutifully read it again, and it’s a completely different experience from my first reading. This time, it almost seems like personal history.
The professor leading the seminar asks, in a casual, offhand way, “So, what did you think?” A short silence follows, until one student says, “It’s a ridiculous book. All this business about flying carpets and children sprouting pigs’ tails, well, it’s simply ludicrous. This is what they call magic realism?”
It seems most of the class agrees. We’re an unusual group; I’m the youngest of about 15 people; the oldest is the CEO of the local gas utility. No one had previously read the book except for me.
The discussion becomes a critical pile-on. Finally, the professor asks, “Did anyone actually enjoy it?”
I raise my hand and nod. “I grew up in a place and culture like Macondo,” I say. “It doesn’t seem alien or ludicrous at all. My grandmother and aunts and uncles told stories like this. I know we had flying carpets. And I’m sure there must have been a few kids in my neighborhood who had pigs’ tails.”
I look around the seminar table, and I see some surprise and even astonishment.
“Where did you grow up?” the professor asks.
“New Orleans,” I say.
“Ah,” he says, nodding, “the northern edge of the Caribbean culture. That makes sense. It’s Garcia Marquez’s culture, too.”
Part of what we learn that semester about the nature of story is that story speaks to us very differently than history or sociology or economics or political science. Inherent in the idea of story is something fundamental to our understanding of who we are, where we come from, how we grow up, what we experience, and what we accept as true. A myth can be just as true as a historical fact. In fact, a myth may be more powerful than a historical fact. Story and myth are the building materials of our worldviews, and they shape us in both known and subtle ways.
I’ve read novels since I was seven years old. And now I’m writing them. When I’m asked where the idea for a novel comes from, I can usually pinpoint a moment, an event, something someone said, or even a song (a song was the inspiration for my first novel).
But none of these things explains where the story comes from. The answer to that question is far more complex. It likely goes back to that big green book of fairy tales my mother read to me. It was that ninth-grade English teacher who taught us Great Expectations and made me fall in love with Dickens. It was my grandmother who worked in a cotton factory when she was five years old. Or my other grandmother who scrubbed floors in the big movie theaters in downtown New Orleans to keep her family fed. It was my great-grandfather who was a messenger boy for the Confederate Army in the Civil War. It was Inez the Crazy Woman who roamed the streets of the Ninth Ward in New Orleans and was every mother’s threat for misbehaving children. It was the list of births and deaths in the family Bible published in 1801, and all those names like Octavia, Cora Belle, and Jarvis.
And it was those flying carpets and children with pigs’ tails.
That’s the nature, and the power, of story.
John 1: 1-5
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.
In what might be the best country song ever written, Don Williams sings this verse:
“Nothing makes a sound in the night like the wind does
But you ain’t afraid if you’re washed in the blood like I was
The smell of cape jasmine thru the window screen
John R. and the Wolfman kept me company
By the light of the radio by my bed
With Thomas Wolfe whispering in my head”
What Do You Do With Good-ole Boys Like Me resonates with every southern man over 50 and most of the rest because it gets at the essence of our boyhood. The verse is important because it is informed by another tale of southern boyhood, Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe, who indeed whispers in our head.
When Wolfe died, William Faulkner said he was the greatest writer of their time.
Few have really read this book because it isn’t easy reading. It’s written in stream of consciousness style reminiscent of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Wolfe was criticized for his unapproachable style but remained unrepentant. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote to him suggesting shorter novels, but Wolfe’s reply letter was 8 times longer than Fitzgerald’s.
Angel does, however get right at the marrow and rewards good ole boys willing to stick with it. Wolfe’s title was almost Alone, Alone, borrowed, he said, “from the poem I like best, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner; then it evolved to O, Lost!; finally, when his publisher asked for something more inspired, Wolfe went to Milton:
. . . Ay me! Whilst thee the shores, and sounding Seas
Wash far away, where ere thy bones are hurld,
Whether beyond the stormy Hebrides,
Where thou perhaps under the whelming tide
Visit’st the bottom of the monstrous world;
Or whether thou to our moist vows deny’d,
Sleep’st by the fable of Bellerus old,
Where the great vision of the guarded Mount
Looks toward Namancos and Bayona’s hold;
Look homeward Angel now, and melt with ruth.
Milton’s angel in Lycidas was St. Michael; the statue in Look Homeward, Angel was of a different sort, based on one that Wolfe’s father had purchased for his tombstone shop. The actual Wolfe statue has been identified on the grave of the wife of a Methodist minister in the Asheville, North Carolina area, and is today a stop for the literary traveler.
When you finish this great book, then read You Can’t Go Home Again.